The Weakest Link

Editors note: I first encountered this piece of writing almost two years ago on another website- one geared for writers. I have no doubt that many readers here will quickly understand why, when reading this, it registered so deeply with me, and why, at that time, I thought to myself- “if I realize my ambitions have a website with some decent traffic, then I will come back and ask for permission to run this one.”

Today, I am affirmed, both by posting this with permission to my website, and again from having given it another read. -Paul

I woke from a stress dream this morning. In the dream it was 1992, and I was back working that $7 per hour temp job on a packing line at the Johnson Controls bottling plant in Merrimack, New Hampshire. My job was to hand-pack 16 Oz Poland Spring water bottles. Thousands of them every day.

Those bottles were the bread and butter of this plant. One of only two such staple lines, and both running 24/7/365 with no excuses. And the flow was unrelenting, moving at 4 units per second down a single-file guide line, burped  straight from the dull green blow-molding behemoth; the whole act swinging  through the air with no net – no rescues allowed. I was good, but no matter how fast I packed those bottles, that machine always seemed determined that I would lose the battle to keep its line clean of jams at my crucial end. Like the damn thing was setting me up for a disaster all day, every day.

As I tried to stay focused on restricting my entire body to that very specific suite of movements that ensure a premier execution of bottle packing process efficiency – eliminating all other extraneous physical motion – I began  to realize that my bladder was launching a challenge to that restriction. In  fact, in a determined effort to have an impact on the situation, it was offering  a sudden and rapidly building pressure of its own, even as the pressure from the  bottle line mounted steadily from instant to instant. I looked at the clock. It  would be over an hour until my scheduled break, and every other line was  slammed, with nothing but asses and elbows visible from one end of the plant to  the other. No net, no rescues allowed, and my bladder didn’t care about that  line of 16 Oz Poland Springs bottles coming at the rest of me. Not at all. It’d  decided that a show of force was in order.

As if it really needed to remind the  rest of me what kind of influence it could exert if put to the test. Within  minutes, the whole of me was suffering but by now I was determined. I’d be  damned if I was going to be pushed around by a belligerent bag of piss.

At some point, I suppose I lost my concentration. Hell, it was  inevitable. I don’t remember the specifics, and really, what difference does it  make?

As soon as my work flow skipped a beat, my line of 16 Oz Poland Spring water bottles jammed, and they jammed right in front of me. That blow-molding machine had won the battle, and there was no saving the established process, as  it mashed its bottles into each other, crushing the entire line into one solid  mass of PET plastic waste. New bottles from the machine were spit into the air  and onto the floor to become instant casualties due to FDA regulations, and at that maximum four bottles per second rate of production efficiency. Me? I just  stood there and surrendered to the fact that there was nothing that I could do to fix any of it.

My attention was suddenly directed to the machine’s operator, who’d run across the floor to scream at me. Poor bastard. I kinda felt bad about his bottles spraying in every direction; lost as soon as they emerged from that big green contraption he served. The monster couldn’t be shut down without a five minute wind-down process, or the thing would…I don’t know…eat itself or  something. Who knows. It wasn’t my job to know why the damn thing was going to need five minutes to stop turning perfectly good bottles into complete garbage. I just knew it would. Everyone knew.

As he yelled at me, I silently calculated the loss, 4 bottles per  second –60 seconds per minute – 240 bottles per minute – times 5 minutes. I didn’t want to make things worse by telling him that the longer he berated me, the more bottles his machine was going to send to the recycling grinder. I figured he probably knew. Like I said, we all knew.

After a while, he was replaced by the floor supervisor, a small man with an even smaller voice, whose waving arms let me know of his disdain for my inability to hold up my end of this enormously valuable endeavor, as sirens wailed, lights flashed, and the wheels of large, corporate profit ground slowly toward an inevitable halt around me.

As the deafening one-per-second boom of the blow-mold machine fell silent for the first time in the five months I’d worked there, I took the ear plugs out and listened to the little guy who raged on before me. I learned about how much money I’d just lost for his bosses, and I learned about how much they  pay him to deal with worthless, irresponsible losers like me. I learn about why the plant’s staff had decided to replace their permanent floorworkers with  temporary scum – scum like me – as this policy made it easier for them to  replace that scum with other scum when that scum finally showed everyone why it  was scum in the first place and would always be scum.

I never said a word. I  just took it in and let the guy rant. After all, his bosses were paying him a  lot of money to rant, and I was happy to let them get their money’s worth as I stood there and let the man to do his job.

When he was done, I smiled and pointed to the carnage that surrounded us.

“I did all this at only seven dollars per hour,” I said, “and without a contract or benefits. Hell, I did it without even trying.”

Then I handed him my ear plugs and walked toward the door to the break room. By the time I reached the time clock, I heard two other line sirens go off. Two other temps must’ve realized the power they held in their weary hands. The power they’d always held, and at seven dollars per hour; without a contract or benefits. I didn’t bother to calculate the impact on the company’s bottom  line. I just punched out and headed for the door.

I woke up at that moment.

The weakest link reigns over the entire chain, and if that link is deliberately denied what it needs to ensure the integrity of that chain, then whose fault is it when the chain fails? This is a truth that business ignores on a daily basis, and at its own collective peril. That blow mold machine operator never held the power to ensure that line, and neither did that floor supervisor.  The power was always solely in my hands, even as those two milled around and  busied themselves with their little fidgets, while I sweated from minute to  minute, hour to hour, and day to day, trying my best to keep their bottles  flowing into 24 count cardboard cases at the rate of 4 bottles per second.

I get the feeling that if every other no-account, temp scum that shows up each day to that same high pressure onslaught of corporate disdain took a moment to let their line jam, we’d see some lower and middle management heads roll. Then, once those heads started rolling, we might see them react with some  sudden resistance to the upper management’s downhill shit-roll, and who knows  where it all might end once that progression begins its own trajectory within  the corporate structure.

A fish rots from the head; meaning that, ultimately, systemic decline descends from the top. We know this is true, but we also know that renewal rises from the bottom, from that foundation that provides stability to the whole. If  that foundation is decimated, there is no renewal; and no amount of effort will  succeed in bringing that whole back to sustainability.

I got to wake up from my stress dream, but what’s happened over the  last few years to our economic structure isn’t a dream. The foundation needs to be repaired if we want the renewal that only it can provide. Bailouts for the top won’t force the foundation to support what it’s already decided to abandon  as repugnant and destructive to its own viability.

The foundation of this  economy, those temp scums that can be replaced with other temp scums, aren’t  worried about the failures in the boardrooms on Wall Street. Why should they be  worried? Their lot won’t change either way, and it was insanity for the top to  re-engineer the structure to insult its own foundation in the first place. The  talking heads tout the business owner as the foundation of this economy. That  assertion is now being debunked, as the real foundation – the waged worker – is  deciding that they see no value in supporting that which crushes down upon them,  and has always crushed upon them; even in the best of times.

In my dream, I watched thousands of dollars evaporate in lost productivity and spoiled inventory and did so at my own earn rate of 11.6 cents per minute. My loss was minimal. I could spare it without raising my stress levels. Certainly without lifting them near the levels that my service to that productivity had raised them. The same holds true for the foundation of this economy as it emerges from the fog of its own leveraged acquisitions. Buying that it had engaged in on behalf of those who profited alone from their dedicated efforts. Their unrewarded spending is done. “Let the damn line jam, and to hell with the sirens.” They seem to sense that it’s time for the top to  lift a finger on its own behalf.

And if not, then to hell with all of it. The beauty of living low is that there’s no fall to worry about. You’re on the ground, and below that…well, there is no below that. When it all crashes around you, it’s you who now owns the neighborhood where everything has just found its new home. When the structure craters, relative wealth is the only wealth, and if you own the ground, you get to set the terms for a change. Just like when, in my dream, I handed the floor supervisor my ear plugs and walked easily to the door, as my peers came to the same conclusion concerning their respective lines.

Let it fail if that’s what the structure demands through its undeniable disdain for its own foundation. Let it crash. The foundation will still be there. It will become the foundation for something else. Maybe something better? Maybe something more aware of the value that sits directly beneath it, and provides it stability? Or maybe not? Maybe it’s a cycle that needs to be repeated again and again, as one empire inevitably falls to allow for the rise of the next?

Whatever. I sit at the foundation. I can’t fall. I can only sit here and watch it all crash around me.


Mr. Carroll has a book coming out in the near future that will be available at  A link to purchase it will be made available on the home page of this website.

Recommended Content